Thursday, February 24, 2005

Books imitating Film (Dubliners)

Of course James Joyce published Dubliners in 1914, which means he was writing it before movies had actually become a genuine artistic medium, but his storytelling method still reminds me keenly of film.

Look at this, for example, taken from the story Counterparts:
The man muttered Blast him! under his breath and pushed back his chair to stand up. When he stood up he was tall and of great bulk. He had a hanging face, dark wine-coloured, with fair eyebrows and moustache: his eyes bulged forward slightly and the whites of them were dirty. He lifted up the counter and, passing by the clients, went out of the office with a heavy step.
In a movie, we would not be able to see what Farrington (the protagonist) looked like until he stood up. Books don't have this constraint, but Mr. Joyce does it anyway.

Other things that he does to create this feel:
- usually narrates from a detached omniscient third-person POV
- often doesn't reveal the names of the characters to us until somebody in the story says that person's name out loud
- And I guess lots of that whole "show not tell" shebang.

(Sidenote: Although he does it well, I don't really subscribe to that philosophy in general. I think a lot of the ways that writers "show" - i.e. "She smiled" in lieu of "She was happy" - are more blatant and annoying than if they figured out a more creative way to "tell" us.)

I think most readers get occasional visual flashes when a writer describes something particularly well, but this is different. I wonder whether Mr. Joyce would have become a screenwriter had he lived about 50 years after his time. Although I suppose that before I make suppositions like that I ought to read some of his later works.